Online Exclusive

Demons: A Story in Nineteen Volumes

“Demons have a well-developed doctrine of their own … Demons know that they are doomed.”
—Demonological pamphlet, San Francisco, 1995


Of course as soon as the word got out that there were demons, real demons, closer to the Earth than the Earth is to the moon, all the demon-worshippers were very happy. They danced in public and poked out their tongues at the unbelievers. Some of them wore hornèd masks; others went around naked with their breasts circled in blue paint. No one stopped them when they stole hot-dogs from the pushcart vendors, when they overturned stalls of fruit or rode their motorcycles triumphantly through the business district. When they torched the shipyard we all felt a little sheepish but we did not object. According to our calculations, the demons would be arriving soon.


Everyone wanted to be a demon-worshipper then. They held their rites in public places, bus stations, amphitheaters, regular houses of worship. Families and towns converted en masse. Gradually the newcomers came to dominate the religion. The new priests had a sense of personal style which the old ones lacked. They understood how to use television effectively; they were young men and women in good health who were always ready with a quote for the reporters. —We believe that we’ll meet our quota in terms of mayhem, they said. We believe that the demons will be pleased with us.
     The old priests could not compete. They became disaffected and gave up their black robes. Some of them took up taxidermy; others opened restaurants or sold eyewear.


The demons began to behave in a demonic manner. They circled the earth faster and faster in their millions; now and then one of them entered the atmosphere and upset an open quart of milk.


Where are the plagues? asked the demonologists. Generally the advent of demons is associated with one or several plagues. But the global population had never been healthier. Malnutrition was down. Typhus was down. Dropsy had practically been eliminated. All over the world people were building aqueducts. The jungle had never seen so many radio towers. On the radio, the cheery music of the nineteen-forties was revived. Everything reminded us of an earlier, happier time. The bustle came back into style, as did the mangle, the hobnailed boot and the pneumatic tube. Children were more polite to their parents and to grownups generally. Even the mayhem perpetrated by the demon-worshippers was confined to a few designated areas. It was as though the demons had relieved us of the burden of being malicious. They were very close then. We could see them with the naked eye in the late afternoon, over the pine trees.


In the swamps people were accosted by moving lights. Their pockets were turned inside-out. Their hats were blown off their heads and found miles away with the label snipped out as if by a very sharp pair of scissors. Buttons, shoelaces, wristwatches, and umbrellas were taken by “little glowing winds.” The demons were learning about us.


Needless to say there were still those who thought the demons were a conspiracy perpetrated by one group of people for the purpose of deceiving a second group of people about the nature of the world, or convincing them of a false theodicy.


The Pope issued a bull entitled De Invisibilitate daemoniorum, which allowed that demons might not actually be invisible, provided that they were “very small or very far away.”


Even before the demons arrived the backlash against them had begun. —They are evil, yes, but are they good for the children? asked Mrs. Maude Francis at a meeting of the Locust Valley Parent-Teacher’s Association. The Delaware First National Bank announced that the demons were “a credit risk,” and declined to offer them Mastercards at any interest rate.

     Meanwhile, people seemed capable of ever greater feats of courage and determination. Doctors worked around the clock to re-attach amputated limbs. Old people ran in marathons and waved their arms triumphantly skywards. High-school dropouts resolved bitter international conflicts and were given the Nobel Peace Prize. A party of autists ascended Mount Everest without the use of language. The lifetime record for home runs was broken by a Cuban and then broken again by an American, and everything was all right. Yes, of course we had the feeling that we’d seen this all before, but what did it matter? Everywhere you looked new wonders of industry were cropping up; they spread across the land like a lucent disease.


Children were instructed in the demon drill. When you hear the alarm do not look at the windows. Older children should first remove their own shoes and then help to remove the shoes of the younger children. Crawl under your desk and clasp your hands at the base of your neck. Do not speak. Know the location of the nearest exit. In case of contamination with evil wash your eyes thoroughly with water. Do not induce vomiting. Extinguish all open flames. Doubt the evidence of your senses. Wait reverently for the second bell.


In Ann Arbor, Mich., scholars compiled an encyclopedia of demons, sponsored by the breakfast cereal and automotive industries. Nineteen volumes were planned, touching on every kind of human endeavor, because, said the scholars, everything is demonic if seen in the proper light. The sponsors asked whether that included breakfast.
     —Yes, certainly, said the scholars.
     —And automobiles?
     —Oh yes. Automobiles especially.
     —Wonderful! said the sponsors. Can you finish it by Christmas?
     —Absolutely not, the scholars replied. It will be the work of a lifetime.
     At this the sponsors shrugged and withdrew their support. Instead they produced a television program called Demon Lovers, which aired every night at half-past eleven. Handsomely dressed demons ate well-balanced meals and drove to the ocean in black convertibles. There they performed unspeakable rites until midnight, when the television went off the air.


What effect would demons have on the local economy?
     —Why, there are plenty of things they can do, said Mrs. Frank Brubaker of Passaic, NJ. There’s always the bowling alley. And Chinese restaurants. Can’t they, you know, cook?
     Dr. K. Huntington of Long Beach, CA had this to say: —I hope the demons show the spirit of entrepreneurship. There are a number of industries in which they could excel. For instance the high-temperature-welding industry. The wish-granting industry. The crimes-of-passion industry. I expect that demon-owned businesses will create thousands of jobs in California alone.
     Prof. A. Karp, of the University of Miami, Ohio, recalled an old story about demons. Long ago, people believed that the world was surrounded by three concentric crystal spheres. The moon was affixed to the first sphere, the sun to the second, and the stars to the third. When a virtuous man died his soul ascended through the crystal spheres and returned to the godhead. The role of demons in this story was to catch the souls before they could escape from the first sphere, or, failing that, before they got free of the second. Some demons had nets, others ropes; some caught the souls in their bare hands. When they had caught a soul they would fling it back to earth, where, like it or not, it was forced to adopt one of the guises that the living go about in until such time as they can escape again.


The demons arrived and everyone was disappointed. They wanted so little from us! Only few bars of soap, because interstellar space, far from being a perfect vacuum, is full of fine soot, the remnants of celestial lights burned out long ago. You must take something else, we said. We offered the demons black convertibles, virgins, chicken blood, time-sharing agreements on our vacation homes. We offered them exclusive recording contracts with the major studios, speaking engagements, honorary degrees and forty-foot yachts on advantageous terms. The demons were embarrassed by our generosity. —You should keep something for yourselves, they said. They did not want our souls. What, they said, could they possibly give us in return?


A week later the demons announced that it was time for them to go. We were very sorry. They had been agreeable dinner guests, quiet neighbors, tasteful consumers of the latest fashions. Even the things which had seemed disagreeable about them at first, for instance their taciturnity and their reputation for base and senseless evil, were forgiven. They had such beautiful eyes, and they could not help being the way they were, any more than a stone could help being heavy, or the winter being cold. —Stay a little longer, we said, we haven’t had time for a game of backgammon! We were afraid that we had done something to drive the demons away. But what could it have been? We had never been so happy, or achieved so much. We had perfected the hydroponic cultivation of vegetables, the safety razor, the smoke-free grill. —Promise at least that you’ll come back, we begged the demons. —Be careful what you ask for, they replied.
     The night they left, children were allowed to stay up late, to go out into the field and wave, holding up the little toys that the demons had left behind.


They were rubber masks, which the children put on gleefully, and which gave them an air of great malice.


The masks did not come off. No one should have been surprised. The demonologists said that demons had played a similar prank in France, Germany, and Spain, in 972 CE. A medieval chronicler wrote of that period, “Et dans cette saison grimacoient tous les enfans horriblement, et personne ne pouvoit poinct les empescher de rire et de danser.” The histories suggested no remedy for it except to wait until the children had grown up, when the masks would be “en tout semblables à leurs vrays visages.” Then many of the children would be made kings.


Et quand partirent les dicts esprits, fust entendu un grand bruit, iceluy estoit, selon les scavants, les pleurs des diables, qui regrettoient le monde et tout sa doulceur terrestre.


By now the demons were far away. People spoke wistfully of the days when they had been so close that you could read a book by their light. —We have lived through exceptional times, they said to one another. Every year on the same night they put out an extra plate at dinner, in case the demons should return.


The scholars gave up their encyclopedia in disgust. They had not been able to agree on anything. Were the demons evil or were they good? Had they really visited the earth? The scholars fielded these and other questions on television. Their answers were disappointing in the extreme. The problem with demons, they said, is that you can’t ever quite pin them down. First they’re one thing and then they’re another. To show what they meant they produced an old stone tablet, with a picture on it of demons carrying a virtuous man up to heaven. The man was smiling; the demons smiled, too. They explained what it all meant to the people on TV, but by then we were too tired to listen. Their voices were tinny and distant, like the voice of our discontent.


Nine years later a great wind blew through the country. Telephone lines went down, windows were broken, trees were stripped of their leaves. People who had been sleeping in one town woke up in the next. Cattle sickened, and fruit withered, and where there had been grass now there was only dust, and it was the same where there had been orchards and fields of tilled land. Rivers dried up, and all that had been rich in the land became as desert. No longer did men go about looking for a place that was not blighted, for there was no place that was not blighted in the land.

Paul La Farge is the author of The Artist of the MissingHaussmann, of the Distinction (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and The Facts of Winter (McSweeney’s Books).